Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Martha Hughes Cannon: The First Woman State Senator

Premiere: 7/29/2020 | 00:12:23 |

Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932) completed medical school, became the fourth of six wives in a polygamous Mormon marriage, and joined the women’s suffrage movement. In 1896, she was elected the country’s first female state senator, defeating her own husband who was also on the ballot.

About the Episode

Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932) came from a Welsh-born immigrant family that traveled West with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to settle in Utah in 1860. After obtaining a medical degree and working as a physician, she became the fourth of six wives in a polygamous Mormon marriage. During the height of a national crackdown on polygamy, she was forced to flee with her first child to England on the ‘Mormon Underground’ to avoid court testimony against her husband and other Mormon fathers. In 1888, she established the first nurse’s training school in Utah. In 1896, Cannon was elected the country’s first female state senator, defeating her own husband who was also on the ballot. A leader in Utah’s women’s suffrage movement, she helped put women’s suffrage into the state’s constitution, established Utah’s first board of health and a school for the deaf and blind.

Interviewees: Jenny Reeder, women’s history specialist at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Church History Department; and former U.S. Representative for Utah’s 4th congressional district, Mia B. Love, the first Black female Republican elected to Congress, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Mattie Hughes Cannon was the first woman elected to a state senate in the United States of America.

She introduced bills to the legislature that continue to influence Utah today.

1872, Salt Lake City, Utah Territory. Fifteen-year-old Martha 'Mattie' Hughes worked as a typesetter for The Women's Exponent, a newspaper printed by women members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mattie Hughes walked to work in the muddy streets of Salt Lake City.

She would wear men's boots and tuck up her skirt so she didn't get muddy.

In the paper, Hughes read that the University of Michigan had opened its medical school to women. She resolved to become a doctor.

'Let us strive to become women of intellect and endeavor to do some little good while we live in this protracted gleam called life.'. Martha Hughes was born in Wales in 1857, to a family who converted to the new religion of Mormonism.

They emigrated to the U.S. when she was two years old, seeking religious freedom, and joined church settlements in the Rocky Mountains.

They crossed the ocean, which was always a treacherous journey, and arrived in New York City.

They took a covered wagon to make it all the way across the plains.

Mattie saw her baby sister die.

She saw her father die three days after they arrived in Salt Lake City.

And she saw in this early settlement of Utah, many women and children die.

And I think this was a huge influence on her decision to become a doctor.

After studying chemistry at Desert University, Hughes attended medical school in Michigan, and a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania.

She was the only female in a class of 75 and she was often asked to sit apart from her male counterparts, so as not to distract them.

Hughes returned to Salt Lake City with her medical degrees in 1882, and at age 25, opened a private practice out of her mother's home.

Women in Utah soon realized that they needed a space where they could practice medicine and care for women, and so they created the Desert Hospital, with female doctors and female nurses.

In 1882, Martha Hughes became the head surgeon.

She also practiced midwifery, and she had the fastest horse that she could find so that she could get to women who were in labor as quickly as she could.

'I would be one of the toughest and most rugged women in the Rocky Mountains.'. Martha grew up in a time where suffrage had been given to Utah women, in 1870, in local elections.

They were the second territory that gave women suffrage. Wyoming was the first.

The West gave women different experiences in the sense that they are building their frontiers, their settlements, from scratch.

Hughes fell in love with a prominent church leader serving on the board of the hospital, who already had three wives and 21 children.

Angus Cannon was 23 years older than she was, and she was married to him as his fourth wife.

Mormon women, because they were a polygamous, interestingly enough, they were able to let go of some of their domestic duties and allow their sister wives to do more public, and civic, and political things.

'A plural wife is not half as much a slave as a single wife.

If her husband has four wives, she has three weeks of freedom every single month.'. Only 30% of the population in Utah actually practiced polygamy.

But plural marriage at this time was a tricky thing for Mormons. While they firmly proclaimed their right to religious freedom, federal legislation put serious repercussions on polygamy.

In 1882, the U.S. passed The Edmunds Act, which made polygamy a crime punishable by five years in prison.

As a result, when Mattie was married in 1884, she had to do so in secret. She couldn't even tell her parents.

As part of a federal crackdown against polygamous families, Cannon was arrested and put on trial in 1885. Hughes, five months pregnant, was summoned to testify against him and other Mormon fathers whose children she had delivered.

'I am considered an important witness.

And if it can be proven that these children have actually come into the world, their fathers will be sent to jail.'. She didn't want to testify against her husband, and the way to counter this was to go into hiding or what was known as 'the underground.'. In 1886, Hughes fled with her baby girl to England under a false name, Maria Munn, while her husband served his prison sentence.

She lived in hiding for two years among other Mormons in exile.

During this time, her daughter nearly died three times, from chickenpox, scarlet fever, and pneumonia.

'You could never realize my present situation unless you were suddenly banished 7,000 miles, your identity lost, afraid to audibly whisper your own name.

My nervous system has received a shock that it will never entirely recover from I fear.'. She also learned through letters, always written in coded words, that her husband Angus had taken both a fifth wife, and then later a sixth wife.

She was very discouraged in her marriage.

'I grow heartily sick and disgusted with polygamy.

I should have given the whole plural system a wide berth.

If after a marriage of nearly four years, a man can't provide a wife and child with a home, he isn't worth having.'. Despite her ambivalence about polygamy, Hughes resumed her marriage to Canonn upon her return from England in 1888.

But she briefly went into hiding again, when their second child was born.

In 1887, the federal government increased its pressure on the church by passing more anti-polygamy legislation.

This act actually removed suffrage from all women living in Utah, whether they were plural wives or not, and put serious repercussions on all those who were practicing polygamy.

In order to protect its own survival, and help the Utah territory achieve statehood, the church officially repudiated polygamy.

The Manifesto of 1890 prohibited new plural marriages, but allowed existing polygamists to live more openly.

Hughes came out of hiding, and dedicated herself to social reform.

Suffrage still had not been given back to Utah women, so Mattie Hughes became actively involved in the Utah Women's Suffrage Association.

'One of the principle reasons why women should vote is that all men and women are created free and equal.

All persons should have the legal right to be the equal of every other.'. In 1896, Utah became the 45th state of the union.

Its constitution banned polygamy and reinstated women's rights to vote.

The state of Utah contributed quite a bit to our country and to our society.

Being the first and only Black Republican female ever elected in Congress, I keep thinking to myself, 'How is it that I'm the only one?'

My name is Mia Love. I'm a daughter of immigrants from Haiti.

I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I am the former representative for Utah's fourth congressional district.

I was the only Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus.

There have been a lot of challenges. I was told over and over again, 'Well, she's not educated enough. She's not smart enough.' I, as a woman, have to work twice as hard to gain the respect of my colleagues.

In 1896, Hughes campaigned for a seat in Utah's first elected legislature.

In a strange twist of fate, she was pitted against her husband on the ballot.

Mattie Hughes Cannon was running as a Democrat. Her husband, interestingly enough, was running as a Republican.

Democrats won the most votes, which means that Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her husband.

She helped pave the way for women to get involved in politics.

'It has proved to the world that woman is not a helpmate by the fireside, but she can, when allowed to do so, become most powerful in the affairs of the government.'. On November 3rd, 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon became the country's first female state senator.

Right after taking office, she established Utah's first board of health.

Martha established the state school for the deaf and blind for people with disabilities, and she worked to certify doctors.

She acted to protect the health of women, which was very progressive at that time.

'Women will purify politics.

Women are better than men and will do the world of politics good.'. Just as Martha's political career was rising, she became pregnant with her third child. For a state that had banned polygamy, this ended her political career.

Angus Cannon, who still maintained illegal polygamous marriages with six women, was arrested.

Hughes retired from politics soon after their third child was born.

'Life is made up of profit and loss, and loss seems to be the prevailing element in my career at present.'. And the fact that she served just for one term tells you that it's not comfortable, because you are changing the norm. But I've always been told that leaders put themselves in difficult places, and become comfortable in those places.

Hughes moved to California with her children in 1904, and worked again as a doctor.

She died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1932, at the age of 75.

Mattie was a woman of grit, who recognized the need to speak up and to speak loudly, to protect the things that she cared about.

She inspires women to run for office.

She inspires women to vote, and she reminds us that there was a price to pay for all of those things.

A statue of Martha Hughes Cannon has been standing at the Utah State Capitol since 1996, and plans are underway to install one in Washington, D.C.

I was part of the effort to get her statue to the United States Congress.

She's a great reminder of don't give up.

'I am willing and not afraid to tread the paths of my destiny, whether they be rugged or whether they be smooth. I have no regrets.'


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.